Neighborhood Nightmares: 25K Vacant Homes

The City of Philadelphia is home to 25,000-thousand vacant properties — some unsightly and others dangerous.

“As you can see, the whole back end of this house fell down,” said Bernard Polis, who lives less than half a block from 741 S. 15th Street where loose bricks, a partially-collapsed roof and violation notices are visual reminders of a home vacant and deteriorating for four years.

"In that condition it's in and the fact, the fact that it can injure somebody. We'd have a disaster around here,” said Polis.

The fear for Yusef Jamal-Addine feels even more urgent. The house right next to his on Mulberry Street is tilting.

"It’s sitting there deteriorating and it's leaning toward my house,” Jamal-Addine points out. "It seems to me that I’m hearing creaking at night, you know. And you just can't be sure you know."

The NBC10 Investigators found the Department of Licenses and inspections (L & I) posted this notice — in May of 2014 — ordering the owner to renovate or demolish the property. That didn't happen. A second city notice went up in December warning the property poses imminent danger and the owner needs to fix it or knock it down immediately. It is still standing.

Licenses and Inspections Commissioner Carlton Williams assured NBC10 and the citizens of the Philadelphia, "That's why we have close oversight over that property and properties like the one that you mention."

The city breaks the 25,000 vacant properties into three categories:

  • 22,900 = Vacant But Safe
  • 1,800 = Unsafe
  • 300 = Imminently Dangerous

(( click map below for enlarged image )) 

L & I did knock down more than 300 imminently dangerous properties last year. Williams cites due process as the primary reason the demolition process doesn’t move faster.

"If they don't comply by the second violation it’s then sent to court."

And the wheels of justice can spin slowly.

We found hundreds of vacant property cases on file at the prothonotary's office. All waiting to be heard.

Judge Bradley Moss hears and rules on L & I cases. Citing orders from his superiors, Moss backed out of an on-camera interview with the NBC10 investigators. But off camera Moss says each case is different and some take nearly one year to resolve.

City Controller Alan Butkovitz has been critical of how L & I operates.

"We know the situation is absolutely destructive of many neighborhoods in the city.” Butkovitz tells NBC10 the city needs to do more than post violations.

"You have to hit them [property owners] financially. It's got to be. The city has to be serious about imposing fines."

L & I said it currently does not issue fines with violation notices. Property owner are fined and billed only if the city has to perform work on the property.

Back on Mulberry Street we found the owner of the home next door to Jamal-Addine requested a repair permit in January.

“I’m concerned that it's going to fall on my house,” said Jamal-Addine, who has an idea of what to do with the property.

"Knock it down. Knock it down first and then build up a new house."

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